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The Vagina Makes a Come-Back!
October 20, 2004
by Bettina Arndt

All the telltale signs of orgasm were there. Her heart was racing, blood pressure up, she had rapid breathing, dilated pupils. Yet the woman shouldn't have been able to feel a thing. She was a paraplegic, with a complete spinal cord injury, unable to feel anything below her waist. Here was a woman who'd been told by doctors that her sex life was over. And now she was telling the Rutgers University researchers that she had experienced an orgasm

They had the proof. While she stimulated herself, using a device to apply rhythmic pressure to the vaginal wall and cervix, her head was firmly clamped inside the opening of a positron-emission tomography (PET) scanner measuring her brain activity. And there it was - a bright red spot glowing in the area representing the medula oblongata of the brainstem - a sure sign, according to psychobiology professor Barry Komisaruk, that she was right.

For the last few years, Komisaruk has been working with his colleague Professor Emerita Beverley Whipple from Rutgers University in New Jersey, tracking brain activity during sexual stimulation. Professor Whipple is well known as one of the researchers who hit the news in the early 70's with research on the G Spot - a sensitive area felt through the front wall of the vagina..

Just as the G Spot discoveries developed from conversations with women who reported vaginal sensitivity, Whipple was inspired by talking with spinal injured women to test out their reported orgasms. The resulting research, published two years ago in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, has lead to some major discoveries including a new nerve pathway providing the sensory stimulus for orgasm. While most genital nerves connect to the brain via the spinal cord, stimulation of areas deep in the vagina, including the cervix, connect with the brain by a different pathway - namely the vagus nerve which winds from the brain through to the genitals, by-passing the spinal cord. It's this different connection which seems to allow many spinal cord injured women to enjoy sexual pleasure.

This is just one of the discoveries bringing into question the view of female sexual pleasure that has dominated for the last fifty years - namely that the clitoris is king ( or should we say queen). That all orgasm results from the clitoris being stimulated, either directly or indirectly. That the clitoral connection is the route of all female pleasure and the vagina a sexual dead end.

Of course, there have always been women whose vaginas proved this wrong. Women who responded to a good old-fashioned bonk. But in recent decades they have been silenced by the clitoral clamour, told they represent a minority who manage miraculously, in a new twist on the princess and the pea, to get off on the tiny crumbs of indirect stimulation of the clitoral glans that result when the vagina is enjoying a work-out.

Now the ground is shifting. The cracks started when Whipple's G Spot discoveries lead women to explore not only the front wall of the vagina but other areas of sensitivity. The result has been a veritable alphabet soup of erotic zones, with sex advice columns now discussing the U Spot (the urethral opening), and X Spot (the cervix) - any number of new anatomical delights.

Then came Melbourne urologist Helen O'Connell's influential work dissecting clitoral anatomy which showed the clitoris was not just a tiny button near the vaginal opening but a large, expanding, highly sensitive structure with legs which extend up to 13 cm and curve around the vagina. Spongy erectile tissue, similar to that in the glans is found right through the clitoral system, including the "female prostate" suggested by Whipple and other scientists to be the G Spot, containing the glands believed responsible for female ejaculation.

British scientist Catherine Blackledge, in her new book "The Story of V" (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003) describes new research showing all these structures to be richly innervated and capable of detecting vibration, touch and pressure changes, particularly deep pressure. So that touching the delicate skin of the clitoral glans produces one type of sensation but deep pressure receptors in the walls of the vagina produce quite another.

Amazingly, we have learnt more about what's actually happening here from couples brave enough to have sex inside MRI machines. Five years ago, when this work started, Dutch scientists had to use very slim couples because the MRI tunnels were a very tight squeeze. But more recently they switched to machines with open magnets allowing far more space and more vigorous action. Dutch and French researchers have produced magnetic imaging showing the fit of the genitals during all this activity and have come up with a few surprises. In the classic missionary position the penis turns out to be bent like a boomerang bringing it nicely into contact with the front wall of the vagina - real G Spot territory. And there's evidence that the clitoris is being stimulated both inside and out - through the vaginal wall plus pressure on the clitoris from the man's public bone.

It's all adding up to a very rich picture of female sexual pleasure. Sure, direct clitoral glans stimulation remains critical, providing the surest route to orgasm for most women. But as we learn more about the complexities of female anatomy and arousal, the vagina is set for a come-back.

That's news that some won't welcome. The politics of female orgasm run hot, very hot indeed. The controversy dates back some seventy years to Freud who was convinced that women achieve sexual maturity by switching focus from the clitoris to the vagina. He argued "frigid" women fail to make the "transfer of sensitivity" from the clitoral stimulation they experience in masturbation to responding to the vagina - mainly because they are paying too much attention to their clitorises. The role of the clitoris should be to set alight the vagina, he said, like "pine shavings can be kindled to set a log of harder wood on fire."

His views were taken very seriously, particularly by his disciples. Freud's writings mention that Maria Bonaparte, leader of the psychoanalytic movement in France, twice had surgery to reposition her clitoral glans in an unsuccessful attempt to get the log burning.

But Freud's views were anathema to Alfred Kinsey, the famous American sexologist who bristled at the moralistic ideas about masturbation that underpinned Freud's rejection of clitoral stimulation. Kinsey's 1953 study of female sexual behaviour concluded the clitoris was the sole "locus" of sexual sensation in the female and that most women received only "psychological satisfaction" from intercourse.

And how did Kinsey reach these conclusions? Well, that was the problem. He conducted his experiments comparing the sensitivity of the clitoris and vagina using a Q tip! It's hardly surprising that fireworks can result from cotton buds tickling the sensitive clitoral glans but the vagina is a very different beast. All the latest research is suggesting that here the turn-on is vibration and pressure, often quite deep pressure, which can be triggered by the rhythmic rock and roll of coupling.

But Kinsey's view was promoted by Masters and Johnson - "All orgasm involves direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoris," pronounced William Masters in 1966 - and the clitoral agenda was taken up with a vengeance by feminists in the late 1960's who declared women had been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men. "I Accuse!" was the name of a bestselling 1968 Danish book which claimed most women were faking orgasm in intercourse to keep men onside and in their beds.

And so it was that Shere Hite, following her 1976 survey of over 3,000 American women, declared clitoral orgasm as the "real orgasm" and suggested many of the 30 per cent of women who claimed to regularly climax during intercourse had to be deluding themselves. "The pattern of sexual relations predominant in our culture exploits and oppresses women," she wrote, claiming it was a myth that penile thrusting in the vagina could cause orgasm.

By the end of the century, for some feminists intercourse had come to symbolize male brutality. Anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin - "I am a feminist, not the fun kind" - really put her boot in. Her book "Intercourse" (1997) describes the sex act as "a means of physiologically making a woman inferior; communicating to her cell by cell her own inferior status, impressing it on her, burning it into her by shoving it into her, over and over, pushing and thrusting until she gives up and gives in." Whew! Certainly not the fun kind. .

With intercourse taking a public pounding, vaginas declared dead in the water, the clitoris was firmly established as the gold standard of female sexual pleasure. Now, thirty years after Hite's survey was published, many remain in the grip of this clitoromania. "There are certain political subgroups that seem to have an anti-intercourse agenda. They are desperate to portray female sexuality as wholly cliterocentric," says Stuart Brody, an American psychology professor now working in Germany. By choosing to conduct research on orgasm in intercourse, Brody rushes in where angels fear to tread. "I'm seen as a bit of a trouble maker," he confesses with a chuckle.

Brody, with his colleagues Ellen Laan and Rik Van Lunsen from the University of Amsterdam, last year published research which sheds new light on one of the hot puzzles in current sex research. Remember earlier this year when Pfizer announced they were giving up on the search for pink Viagra? The reason was that while their research showed Viagra did increase pelvic blood flow- one of the physiological signs of arousal - many women didn't even notice. "There's a disconnect in many women between genital changes and mental changes," said Dr Mitra Boolel, the leader of the company's sex research team.

Well, Brody and colleagues wondered whether women who climax regularly in intercourse are more likely to make this connection since pelvic blood flow is usually measured in the vagina. Interestingly, using post-menopausal women as volunteers, these European researchers had no trouble finding a large group who said they climaxed during intercourse (38 percent claimed this happened every time, and another third most or half the time). Accurate information on orgasm patterns in the normal population is sorely lacking - there has not been any well-researched large-scale surveys since the Hite Report, although Kinsey's data showed more than half of his subjects reached orgasm in intercourse over 90 per cent of the time.

In the experiment the women had their vaginal blood flow measured while being shown erotic videotapes. The scientists found women who reported they didn't climax in intercourse were less likely than the coitally orgasmic women to show a correlation between vaginal blood flow and their subjective perception of arousal.

"For a woman to have an orgasm from intercourse, she has to be aware of and sensitive to erotic stimulation of her vagina. Unfortunately many women are not," comments Brody. He speculates there may be a range of reasons why some women have this awareness and others not, including: physical sensitivity; different nerve pathways to the brain from the vagina and clitoris; having a skilled lover; issues of anatomical fit including size and shape of the penis; attention to sensations and appreciation of having a vagina and "not being indoctrinated by anti-intercourse propaganda," he adds.

But the truth is no-one knows. At this stage in sexology research, it is quite unclear how many women readily climax during intercourse through thrusting alone, how many can do this if they are first highly aroused through direct clitoral stimulation, or by adding that direct stimulation as part of the act? And how many learn to enjoy these pleasures when they find the right lover, or dare we say it, mature sexually, as Freud suggested? The mysteries remain unanswered.

One thing is for sure, there are still plenty of women keen to awaken their vaginas. After decades of the big clitoral push, the message hasn't sunk in. Women still want to climax in what they see as the "natural" way. "I hear that from women all the time. They, and their partners, cling to the idea that the only real orgasm happens during intercourse," says Dr Rosie King, Woman's Day advice columnist and one of Australia's best known sex therapists. A recent edition of American Cosmopolitan magazine reported their most frequently asked advice question was "How do I come during intercourse?"

"I get a couple of calls each night. Young women ring up and tell me they want an `internal' orgasm. They are talking about coming during intercourse, no hands," says Gabrielle Morrissey a Perth sex therapist who has a nightly weekday radio sex advice programme on radio 96FM. "No hands" intercourse is sex therapists' talk for no-frills bonking, to distinguish it from sex where a finger on the clitoris adds something extra. Morrissey works hard to convince her listeners that there's nothing wrong with that little something extra and women shouldn't beat themselves up wanting it to happen through the old in-and-out.

Of course, she's right. Vaginal orgasm isn't the holy grail. That's where Freud went wrong. It certainly isn't helpful to label "frigid" women who get their kicks through direct clitoral attention. Beverly Whipple, who's done more to promote the hidden delights of the vagina than anyone in recent history, makes this very clear. "It's not about setting up new goals. It's not about saying this is the way you should or should not respond but just listening to women, finding out what is pleasurable and what brings them satisfaction," she says, speaking from her New Jersey home prior to rushing off to her next international sex conference

But could it be that women are missing out on some sources of satisfaction because of all the attention being paid to direct clitoral stimulation? Perhaps, says Sandra Pertot a Newcastle sex therapist, who's been helping women with these problems for over thirty years. "There are definitely some women who experience orgasm with intercourse from the time they start having sex with a partner. However a lot of women report that they started off needing clitoral stimulation but as time goes on, sometimes after many years, they find vaginal orgasm kicks in." (She explains she's talking about orgasm through thrusting, no hands, which of course, isn't really a "vaginal" orgasm since the erectile tissue of the clitoris is stimulated by pressure on the wall of the vagina and presumably provides essential triggers for the orgasmic response. Plus the clitoris may need a lot of attention in foreplay for this to happen.)

Pertot's feeling is women have a fifty/fifty chance of this happening - "I think Hite's figures are on the low side but I have no clear idea why some women can do it and some can't." Pertot suspects that the shift doesn't take place if the woman seeks the same intense sensations she receives from direct clitoral stimulation.

"Women who are orgasmic through direct clitoral stimulation are often looking for exactly that sensation vaginally. You have to say, forget about that and think about what you are actually feeling," says Pertot who finds she has to teach women to tune into the more subtle stimulation they receive during intercourse. "It's about learning to make that particular brain-genital connection."

But helping women explore these possibilities also runs the risk of setting them up for failure if it doesn't happen. Often the pressure comes from their lovers, says Dr Vivienne Cass, a Perth sex therapist and author of a new book - "The Elusive Orgasm - a woman's guide to why she can't and how she can orgasm." (Brightfire, 2004). Cass mentions a couple who recently came to her complaining the wife was unable to climax during intercourse. "I feel I have failed as a man," said the husband.

Cass' book, which contains splendidly graphic illustrations showing the female genitals and clitoral structures in all their newly revealed glory, gives detailed advice on all the techniques that can help. These generally depend on getting the woman to fever pitch before the penis gets in the act, adding clitoral finger action and carefully exploring positions and motion that keep up the heat. What's critical is to avoid making the exercise too goal-oriented because that pressure then becomes a turn-off. It usually works, says Cass but only if the woman seeks to explore these options as "just part of the pleasure, rather than the only true way to orgasm."

What's needed now is a change in the culture, suggests Catherine Blackledge, who has a PhD in chemistry, and worked for years as a science writer before writing her book on the vagina -"The Story of V." Blackledge, 35, spent four years researching the cross-cultural history of the vagina and all the new research on its physiology and sexual function.

Her book makes a strong case that there's much we still don't know about this marvellous organ and women need to be encouraged to explore all it has to offer - something our culture has failed to do in recent years. "Our culture has kept the vagina from us. I get so angry when I keep reading in articles that the vagina is insensitive because the research clearly shows it is anything but that," says Blackledge. She believes the problem is also exacerbated by the way intercourse is portrayed in movies, particularly porn movies - "all that quick thrusting. Quick thrusting can be great but you need a balance. To experience vaginal orgasm you need to slow down so you can think and feel deep into these vaginal sensations. You need slow grinding, squeezing, and for the woman to use her vaginal muscles," Blackledge suggests.

For a scientist, Blackledge is refreshingly willing to get personal. On the telephone from her office in London where she is at work on her next book, she cheerfully discusses the first time she reached vaginal orgasm - with her fourth lover, a man with whom she felt safe and extremely comfortable - and the differences in her response to vaginal and direct clitoral stimulation. She's convinced from discussions with women she's had during and since writing the book, that many more than a third of women climax in intercourse - "My gut tells me that figure's completely wrong. "

Here's a woman convinced that the vagina has been greatly undersold - a situation she's doing her best to change. Its miracles are still emerging, as her book makes clear. How about the notion that the vagina has ESP? Yes, it sounds mighty strange but this intriguing idea has a sound scientific basis which emerged from the Whipple/Komisaruk research with spinal-injured women. The researchers discovered that amongst the women with severed spinal chords showing all the physiological signs of orgasm were some who reported they could feel the vagina and cervix being stimulated, while others felt nothing at all. Orgasm in this latter group raise the possibility, according to Whipple/Komisaruk, that the vagina may be capable of experiencing the phenomenon known as "blindsight" - named after people with lesions in the visual cortex who respond appropriately to visual stimulation even though they cannot see. "Somehow the vagus nerve is receiving sensations even though the women can't feel anything," says Blackledge suggesting this response points to the critical evolutionary role of pleasure and orgasm experienced through the vagus nerve.

And then there's the fact that vaginal stimulation and orgasm causes the vagina to feel less pain. Whipple and Komisaruk found that pleasurable stimulation of the vagina and cervix can increase women's pain threshold by 75 per cent, with orgasm pushing that up to over 100 per cent. The researchers suggest this analgesic affect has a role in relieving pain during childbirth. Interestingly, eating hot food seems to interfere with this process. Whipple has conducted research with women in Mexico which found those whose diet was high in chilli peppers don't show the pain-blocking response to vaginal stimulation present in the non-chilli eaters. Whipple mentions women in India are warned not to eat spicy food for three months before they deliver.

The analgesic effect might also be designed to allow the vagina to enjoy prolonged lovemaking, suggests Blackledge. "You don't want the vagina to be incredibly irritated by sexual stimulation," she says, proposing that we are provided with this natural pain-killer to allow for such vigorous work-outs.

No less than a vaginal revolution is brewing, says Catherine Blackledge who waxes lyrical at exciting research revealing the complexities of the vagina's role in sexual pleasure and its powerful influence on the process of reproduction. While the scientific mysteries of the vagina are slowly being revealed, the challenge is now to encourage women to sample its delights. (Ends)

Men and their orgasms

At a recent international conference, appreciative chuckles greeted a urologist's presentation of a large box he'd labelled "Male and Female Control Panel." On the men's half was a simple up-down switch. But the women's side was an absolute maze of mysterious knobs, wires and dials, in all sorts of colours and sizes.

A good joke, but actually far from the truth. In case men reading this story feel left out of all the excitement, male orgasms are proving more complex than many used to believe. As Catherine Blackledge explains in "The Story of V," research has revealed that a variety of different nerves provide the stimulus for male orgasm. The pudendal nerve innervates penile and scrotal skin, the hypogastric nerve transmits sensory stimuli from the testicles and anus and the pelvic nerve is thought to connect the brain to the prostate.

"So quick masturbation can give a particular level of orgasm but lengthy erotic sex can give them a completely different kind of climax, a more whole body orgasm. If you go slowly and stimulate different parts of the body - testicles, anus, penis - all of the different nerves start firing off together and you get this more intense sensation," says Blackledge.

And it can happen more than once. Although women are far more commonly multiorgasmic, research shows men can also experience multiple orgasms by learning how to exercise and strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor. A strong contraction of the muscles at the point of climax enables men to enjoy orgasm and prevent ejaculation. Although the two are usually seen as part of a package, ejaculation and orgasm are actually two separate physiological mechanisms. Orgasm is a perception, a peaking of pleasure - something that occurs between the ears. Orgasm is accompanied by 5 to 15 involuntary contractions of the muscles of the urethra and the pelvic floor which can result in ejaculation of semen. Ejaculation is just a reflex, a motor pattern which can occur independently of the brain.

(Drug side-effects provide another clear illustration of this separation. Many men taking anti- depressants such as Prozac find that the drug inhibits orgasm but not ejaculation - in up to one in five users. Some men with Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis find the opposite is true - they experience orgasm without ejaculation.)

There is also a small group of men who experience multiple ejaculatory orgasms - that is they are multiorgasmic and ejaculate with every orgasm. Dr Rosie King: "The reason most men aren't multiorgasmic is due to the refractory or recovery period after orgasm when the penis cannot respond to sexual stimulation. In young men the refractory period is short but it lengthens as men age. Yet some men are blessed with the ability to skip the refractory period altogether."

King says it appears the refractory period is determined by the release at the time of orgasm of the hormone prolactin and other sexually inhibiting chemicals in the brain. A study in Germany compared the blood levels of prolactin after orgasm in men with normal refractory periods with one fortunate subject who was multiorgasmic. In the last lucky lad, no rise in prolactin was detected after three orgasms in a row.

Blackledge reports research suggesting these multiorgasmic men fall into three groups - some have always enjoyed multiple ejaculatory orgasms, others have taught themselves how to and for others it happened by chance. In one laboratory study, a thirty-five-year old man enjoyed six orgasms with six ejaculations, with a period of thirty-six minutes between his first and last orgasm. .

But man has a long way to go before he can match the performance of the male macaque monkey which can ejaculate 45 times in three hours without even getting short of breath.

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